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Upcoming Changes to PLUS Loans May Help Blacks

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – This fall, the Department of Education plans to announce changes to PLUS loans that officials say will make it easier for parents to qualify for the financial aid program that thousands of Black college students rely on every semester.

In an effort to combat a rising number of parent loan defaults in 2011, the department began to enforce more strict borrowing guidelines, a move that disproportionately affected Black parents, especially ones that lost homes and jobs and were burdened by high levels of debt incurred during the Great Recession.

“Since the change, we’ve been working directly with the schools to try and re-enroll as many students as possible. Our data basically says that, even in those first cohorts, we were able to get 76 percent of students enrolled into the colleges that they applied to originally,” said Jim Shelton, the secretary of education and executive director of the task force for My Brother’s Keeper. “Additionally, we just finished the rule-making process that allows us to adjust the flexibility around the PLUS loan program and that will come out more formally in the fall.”

Shelton said that teams from the federal student aid organization are working with college admissions officials at historically Black colleges and universities to help students apply for aid.

In private conversations, some HBCU presidents say the damage to Black enrollment is more severe than the White House describes.

The policy revisions will make credit requirements for the PLUS program more flexible, according to Shelton. He said the updated eligibility standards that the Department of Education is going to put into effect will allow close to 300,000 students who may have been denied under the old rules to qualify for PLUS loans without having to go through the reconsideration process.

Department of Education officials discussed the PLUS loan program, the My Brother’s Keeper initiative and other topics related to improving educational outcomes for students of color, during a recent meeting with reporters.

Officials with the department said that for the first time in the nation’s history, public schools from kindergarten through the 12th grade will enroll more minority students than White pupils.

“Urban school districts across the nation are already 80 percent African American, Hispanic, and Asian American,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), a national network of urban public school systems. “We are the future.”

Casserly said that 40 percent of Black and Hispanic students that live below the poverty line and 32 percent of the nation’s African American males attend in CGCS schools.

The CGCS network, working in conjunction with the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, pledged to increase the pipeline of high achieving students of color by expanding access to preschool, advanced placement and gifted classes and decreasing the disproportionate rates of suspensions and expulsions.

“What’s nice about what’s happened so far is that we’re starting to gather the best practices from cities that have been working on suspensions issues, that have been working on growing their [advanced placement], gifted and talented programs districts that have been trying to grow the number of African Americans and Hispanics in their preschool classes,” said Casserly.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that by any measure, our young men of color are not where they need to be.

According to the Schott Foundation for Public Education the national Black-White male graduation gap was more than 25 percent in 2009-2010.

Black male students also endure higher rates of suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement than their White peers. Black children, some as young as 3-years-old, account for roughly half of preschoolers suspended more than once.

Duncan said that he was stunned to learn that schools were suspending students that young.

The education chief said that in a lot of ways the research for My Brother’s Keeper came right out of Civil Rights Data Collection project, which talked about the lack of access to advanced placement classes, the lack of access to early childhood education, disparate labeling for special education and the school to prison pipeline.

“Academically, [boys and young men of color] don’t have the tools they need to be successful and, to really challenge that status quo in a really profound way, we think this is absolutely the right thing to do,” said Duncan.

Duncan said that the Department of Education will challenge states to not only take a very open and honest look at the mix of their teachers working in disadvantaged communities, but to also develop plans to address any disparities they find.

A Center for American Progress report on improving access to effective teachers in public schools highlighted The System for Teacher and Student Advancement (TAP), an “approach that provides opportunities for career advancement, professional growth, instructionally focused accountability, and competitive compensation for educators.”

TAP currently supports 200,000 students and 20,000 teachers.

The report also showcased North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ strategic staffing initiative designed to assist low-performing students that staffed poor schools with talented teachers and “priority access to district resources.”

The CAP report also recommended cultivating talented teachers and school administrators, developing better data collection and evaluation tools, and compensating highly effective teachers when they move to poor schools where they’re needed the most.

“If we all believe that great teachers make a difference in students’ lives, if we all believe that great principals make a huge difference in students’ lives, we have to be much more creative in how we attract, support, and retain that great talent in underserved communities,” said Duncan.

Duncan said that the Department of Education wants to take pockets of creativity and innovation to scale.

“Anyone who has historically said that providing a high quality education for Black kids and Brown kids was just important for that community, that’s simply not the case,” said Duncan. “This is the right thing to do for our nation.”

Duncan continued: “If we don’t have great educational opportunities, [advanced placement] classes, reduced dropout rates, and [more] kids college, if we’re not making that the norm for our students of color, our nation is going to suffer our, economic competitiveness is going to suffer our ability to have upward mobility our ability to have more families entering the middle class and to reduce inequities is going to suffer.”

Feds Vote to Retroactively Reduce Sentences on Drug Crimes

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By Zenitha Prince
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

More than 46,000 drug offenders—many of them Black and Hispanic—could be eligible for reduced sentences following a decision by the United States Sentencing Commission earlier this month.

Members of the Commission on July 18 voted unanimously to apply a reduction in sentencing guidelines for most federal drug crimes—a move decided upon in April—retroactively, meaning many offenders currently in prison could be eligible for reduced sentences beginning November 2015.

“This amendment received unanimous support from commissioners because it is a measured approach,” Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission, said in a statement. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”

Congress has until Nov. 1, 2014, to nix the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. If they are allowed to stand, prisoners can begin petitioning the courts for sentence decreases but would not be eligible for release until Nov. 1, 2015. The year-long lag will give judges time to review cases to ensure that sentence reductions do not pose a risk to public safety among other considerations, the Commission said.

“The delay will help to protect public safety by enabling appropriate consideration of individual petitions by judges, ensuring effective supervision of offenders upon release, and allowing for effective reentry plans,” Saris said.

The Commission’s recommendation has been praised by the Obama administration, which has expressed its enthusiasm for implementing the plan.

“We have been in ongoing discussions with the Commission during its deliberations on this issue, and conveyed the department’s support for this balanced approach,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, chief of the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the prison system.

“In the interest of fairness, it makes sense to apply changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactively, and the idea of a one-year implementation delay will adequately address public safety concerns by ensuring that judges have adequate time to consider whether an eligible individual is an appropriate candidate for a reduced sentence,” Holder added. “This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system.”

According to federal data, the population of U.S. federal prisons exceeds capacity by around 32 percent. Half of that population are drug offenders, who also represent 66 percent of the increase in the federal prison population. Overcrowded prisons cost taxpayers millions. Just the retroactive application of the Commission’s amendment could save an estimated $2.3 billion.

And there are other tolls.

“While these figures are staggering, the human cost has been even greater,” U.S. House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.)  said in a joint statement.

“For decades, the federal ‘War on Drugs’ has been the primary engine of mass incarceration….This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies have consistently shown—for decades—that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than Whites,” the congressmen added. “…The Commission’s historic vote today also seeks to right this disproportionate racial impact.”

Community in Outrage Over Handling of Eric Garner Police Killing

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By A.B. Nickerson
Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News

When a white police officer kills an unarmed Black man, as it happened last week on Staten Island, you can expect a furious outrage from one part of the community and an attempt to justify the death from the other side.

It’s a no-win situation, especially for Eric Garner, who was manhandled and then taken down in a chokehold last Thursday outside a store in Tompkinsville. According to police, they were called to the scene by shop owners complaining that Garner, 43, a father of six children, was selling loose cigarettes, thereby hindering their sales and profit.

When the undercover officers arrived to apprehend Garner, he tried to explain to them that he had done nothing wrong. You can hear and see him on a video pleading with the officers, who may have at first hesitated handcuffing him until they had backup.

In the meantime, one of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, eased behind Garner and locked his neck in a chokehold. The two tumbled to the pavement as other officers rushed to hold him down, one of them smashing his head into the cement.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Garner cries out, but to no avail.

Garner, more than 6 feet tall and weighing more than 300 pounds, and an asthmatic, was finally subdued, his breathing labored.

He was apparently still alive when the EMT workers arrived, but other than feel to see if he still had a pulse, they did nothing to assist him. Garner could have possibly been saved if he had been placed in an upright position, claimed Dr. Cyril Wecht, a noted pathologist. “You want to position him in a way to facilitate breathing,” Wecht told the press.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, at a press conference last Friday, said that Garner was taken from the scene in an ambulance and died upon arrival at the Staten Island Hospital, a victim of cardiac arrest.

Garner is the latest victim of an apparent chokehold and, according to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, there have been more than a thousand such reports since 2009, but only nine have been substantiated, and only one resulted in punitive measures being ordered.

Those four EMT workers have been placed on modified duty with a suspension of pay.

Two of the NYPD officers are now on desk assignment, with Pantaleo stripped of his badge and gun pending further investigation.

Early reports from the medical examiner indicate that Garner did not suffer any trauma to his trachea or windpipe. Even so, the forcible takedown of a man suffering from obesity, asthma and possibly heart disease could have been enough to induce a heart attack.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who delayed his trip to Italy by one day, told the press that “we shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” though the video that can be seen on YouTube shows clearly what happened. Meanwhile, for Bratton to cite Garner’s arrest record before offering his condolences seemed inappropriate.

“Even if police procedures don’t kick in,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton during a sermon last Sunday at Riverside Church, referring to the fact that chokeholds have been outlawed by NYPD since 1982, “when does your sense of humanity kick in? Have we gotten that cold?”

Fed. Ct. Upholds U. of Texas’ Race-Conscious Admissions Policy—Affirmative Action Victory

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By Zenitha Prince
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

A federal appeals court recently upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s race-conscious admissions policy, which had been challenged as unconstitutional in a suit brought by White applicant Abigail Fisher.

“To deny UT Austin its limited use of race in its search for holistic diversity would hobble the richness of the educational experience,” Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote in the 2-1 opinion for the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Civil rights activists argued that the ruling undergirded the legal footing of affirmative action, as established by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which held that universities and colleges have a “compelling interest” in using race to foster diversity due to its benefits, including better preparing students to compete in an increasingly global market.

“This decision should stand as a declaration of the ongoing importance and legality of affirmative action efforts that holistically evaluate applicants for admission in higher education and for the principle of stare decisis [precedent],” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “The court aptly noted that ‘university education is more the shaping of lives than the filling of heads with facts.’ Universities are incubators for America’s future leadership and for civic engagement.”

The 2-1 decision came on July 15 after a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit court reviewed the case, which the Supreme Court remanded to the lower court for more exacting scrutiny last year. After the University of Texas’ former quota-based diversity plan was nixed by the courts in 1997, the school system adopted an admissions process guaranteeing entry to all students who graduate at the top 10 percent of their class.

In admitting those students who do not qualify under the 10 percent rule—and with an eye to diversity—the university used a holistic measuring tool that considered academic achievement and other factors such as, racial/ethnic background, extracurricular activities and the applicant’s responsibilities at home.

Under the new test set by the Supreme Court, the appeals court could not merely rubber-stamp UT’s plan, but had to assess whether the admissions program had been “narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity.” The court also had to verify that the use of race was “necessary” to achieve a diverse student body and that there were no viable race-neutral alternatives.

The university met those standards, the review found.

For example, UT had pursued several other options for achieving diversity, including offering scholarships to students from high schools—usually low-income—that were underrepresented in the university’s freshman classes and pursuing various outreach and recruitment initiatives, the court found.The court also cited statistics showing that in 2008, for example, the holistic review process admitted a higher percentage of White students than Black and Hispanic students, negating the argument that it was a means of merely boosting racial quota.

“UT Austin persuades that this reach into the applicant pool is not a further search for numbers but a search for students of unique talents and backgrounds who can enrich the diversity of the student body in distinct ways,” Higginbotham said in the majority opinion, shared by Judge Carolyn Dineen King. “We are persuaded that holistic review is a necessary complement to the Top Ten Percent Plan, enabling it to operate without reducing itself to a cover for a quota system; that in doing so, its limited use of race is narrowly tailored to this role—as small a part as possible for the Plan to succeed.”

A strong dissent was offered by Judge Emilio M. Garza, however, and Fisher vowed to appeal the decision, both steps that could mean that the case is not over and could go back before the Supreme Court.

In his dissent, Garza accused his colleagues of not applying the “strict scrutiny” to the university’s plan that the Supreme Court had directed.

“Simply put, the Constitution does not treat race-conscious admissions programs differently because their stated aim is to help, not to harm,” he wrote.

UT was allowed to get away with its nebulous goal of creating a “critical mass” of African-American and Hispanic students, a goal that was never defined and was, thus, unmeasurable, he argued. As a result, Fisher could not prove that UT’s program wasn’t narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state goal, a standard required for using race-conscious admission programs.

“Accordingly, it is impossible to determine whether the University’s use of racial classifications in its admissions process is narrowly tailored to its stated goal—essentially, its ends remain unknown,” Garza concluded.

Fisher’s lawyer, Edward Blum, told the Los Angeles Times his client would appeal the latest Fifth Circuit’s decision.

“We are disappointed,” Blum said. “But this court was proven wrong by the Supreme Court in 2013 and we believe they will be proven wrong again.”

Report: Stereotyped Mascots Harmfully Effecting Native American Youth

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By Roberto Alejandro
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper

A recent report prepared by The Center for American Progress found stereotypical team mascots have a harmful effect on American Indian and Alaska Native youth.

Noting that the American Psychological Association issued a call to retire all team and school mascots based on depictions of Native Americans back in 2005, the study emphasized the psychological effects of such caricatures, including testimony from Native American youth.

Among those quoted in the report, “Missing the Point: the Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth,” was Dr. Stephanie Fryburg, a psychology professor and expert on the effects of stereotypical mascot depictions on American Indian and Alaskan Native youth.

“American Indian mascots are harmful not only because they are often negative, but because they remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them,” said Fryburg. “This in turn restricts the number of ways American Indians can see themselves.”

According to the report, the effect on the self-esteem of those youth has serious consequences, including a suicide rate that is 2.5 times higher than the national average: 31 for every 100,000 American Indian youth, versus the 12.2 for every 100,000 youths nationally.

With the report, the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan educational institute, has joined the fray over the use of Native mascots in sports, highlighted by the current controversy over the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

In June, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that the Redskins name was disparaging and invalidated the NFL franchise’s trademark over the name. Under U.S. Code, trademarks that disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute are prohibited.

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